Private trains on Indian Railways network: Why one can’t ignore several red flags

In what is being hailed as a “historic” measure signifying a paradigm shift, Indian Railways (IR) has invited private investors to operate 151 passenger trains on 109 selected routes across its network. The belated initiative would impact only a minuscule “upper class” segment of its passenger business, the overwhelming component of lower-class passenger services would remain beyond the ambit of the scheme the way it has been envisioned.

Important in this context is to first comprehend the structure of IR’s passenger business. It operated a daily average of 13,523 passenger trains in 2018-19, which included 3,695 inter-city mail and express services, 3,947 ordinary short-distance-stopping “regional” trains, and 5,881 electrical multiple units operated on suburban sections for intra-city passengers. The regional/sectional trains, with multiple stops, cater to short-distance journeys (an average of 111 km in 2018-19) and contribute maximum loss in passenger business. It is only the inter-city mail and express services that constitute IR’s core passenger business, which need to be duly nurtured and developed. Again, within this category, only the upper-class portion will be of interest to private operators, especially in view of flexibility in fixing fares.

It is, thus, essential to analyse the project in terms of its overarching aims and objectives, namely, reducing the supply-demand deficit, encouraging modal shift from air to rail, and significantly reducing transit time.

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